When all the Broadway buzz around “Hamilton” began drifting up north to the Capital Region, Heidi Hill had a great idea.
“I thought we might need to develop a new tour that would focus on Elizabeth Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton and their life here in Albany,” said Hill, director of the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site at 32 Catherine St. in the South End of the city.
‘Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site’
WHERE: Schuyler Mansion, 32 Catherine St., Albany
WHEN: Open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; Hamilton tours are 2 p.m., Thursday, Saturday and Sunday
HOW MUCH: $5, $4 for seniors and adults; 12 and under, free
MORE INFO: 434-0834, facebook.com/schuylermansion
“We had been getting calls as early as the fall from people wanting to know how long he lived at the site, so we decided in December to do some more research and we were ready to debut our new Hamilton tour by the end of February. The response has been amazing.”
The success of “Hamilton,” which was nominated for a record-breaking 16 Tony Awards and won 11 earlier this month, is sparking an interest in early American history. In Albany, that attention is reflected in an increasing number of visitors to the Schuyler Mansion.
“We are closed during the winter months, but we offered a special tour on Saturday, the third Saturday of each month in February, March and April, and we sold out,” said Hill, who also oversees the Fort Crailo State Historic Site across the Hudson River in Rensselaer. “We had waiting lists. We opened for our season on May 11 and started offering tours every Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. It’s so popular that it’s by reservation only, so people need to let us know that they’re coming.”
“Hamilton” is a musical written by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda about the life of Alexander Hamilton, sometimes referred to as America’s “Forgotten Founding Father.” The play, which opened on Broadway in August of 2015, has a cast of mostly black and Latino actors, with a score steeped in hip-hop. It is based on the highly-acclaimed 2004 biography of Hamilton by Ron Chernow. Along with its Tony successes, the show won a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Chernow served as a consultant as the show was being put together, and while Miranda allowed himself some poetic license, no one seems to be complaining.
[‘Hamilton’ and history: Are they in sync?]
‘This is so cool’
Jenna Peterson Riley, an educator at the Mabee Farm in Rotterdam Junction, traveled to Broadway to see the play in March. She loved the show and, perhaps more importantly, the impact it may have on children who typically don’t show any interest in history.
“I was chatting with a woman who was there with her high school daughter, and the girl said, ‘I don’t really like history, but this is so cool,’ ” said Riley. “As a museum educator, that’s exactly what I love to hear. It got her excited about history. It may not be 100 percent historically accurate, but Ron Chernow served as a consultant so within the confines that they had to work with I think they were as correct as they could be.”
Riley’s final assessment is that the show was very good history and spectacular entertainment.
“I sobbed my way through it,” she said. “I grew up in a family that loved musical theater, and while I had never been a big fan of rap or spoken-words music, it was still very interesting. It was the most thoughtfully constructed show that I’ve ever seen.”
Ellen Fladger, retired Schaffer Library Archivist at Union College, sees an occasional Broadway show but it’s usually not a musical, particularly one rich in hip-hop.
“If I could get back in to see it again, I would,” said Fladger. “I’m not a person who usually enjoys musicals that much, and I was really worried that I wouldn’t be able to understand the hip-hop stuff. But I was wrong about both of those things. The music is great, the lyrics, when spoken or rapped, are great. The whole package is great.”
Fladger was concerned she might have a little trouble with her “suspension of disbelief” when watching “Hamilton.”
“They have people of color playing the original Founding Fathers, and initially when this black actor introduces himself as Aaron Burr, well, I got past it very quickly,” she said. “I probably didn’t know as much about Hamilton as I should have, and while I’m sure they took some liberties, what I really responded to was the spirit of the show. When they’re gathering and meeting to talk about the Revolution, you get a real sense that these people were really pulling together to do something new and different, and to form their own country.”
In Albany for 2 years
Hamilton lived in Albany at the Schuyler Mansion for two years at the conclusion of the American Revolution. The aide-de-camp to Washington during most of the Revolution, Hamilton married the daughter of prominent New Yorker Phillip Schuyler in 1780. Along with James Madison and John Jay, he wrote “The Federalist Papers,” and became our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr in 1804.
“He and his wife lived here for two solid years from 1782-83,” said Hill, who has not yet seen the show. “Then they were here on and off after that. A lot of the research we did focused on the letters of Hamilton to Elizabeth Schuyler and Phillip Schuyler. So we tell their story through those letters, and it’s quite a fascinating one. There’s a sharp contrast between the lifestyle of the Schuylers and Hamilton’s upbringing.”
As she approaches her 10th year at the Schuyler Mansion and Crailo, where Elizabeth Schuyler’s mother grew up as Catherine Van Rensselaer, Hill feels as though she has gotten to know Hamilton and his in-laws pretty well.
“Hamilton was certainly an elitist, as was Phillip Schuyler,” she said. “It’s hard for us to put our 21st century ideals onto them. They were creating a nation, it was a different time, and the more you look into it the more you find things that draw you toward these characters and things that push you away a bit. Hamilton is a complicated figure in American history, and hopefully the musical will get more people interested in history, help them become more informed and give them a better picture of what life was like in the 18th century.”
Fladger, who retired from Union in 2014 after 34 years at the college, said “Hamilton” is a musical that won’t get old quickly.
“I bought the soundtrack and drove back from Massachusetts last weekend,” she said. “I listened to the whole thing again, playing it at full volume. It still sounds very good.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]